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WHO recommends new, cheaper malaria vaccine for children

This representational picture shows a patient receiving a vaccine from a doctor. — Unsplash/File
  • R21/Matrix-M is mass manufactured by Serum Institute of India.
  • Malaria kills over 600,000 each year globally.
  • WHO chief says doses would cost between $2 and $4.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended an affordable, mass-produced malaria vaccine developed by the University of Oxford, in a major development against the life-threatening disease spread to humans by some mosquitoes.

Malaria, a major global health issue, primarily affects babies and infants and has been a significant problem for over a century. However, agreements are already in place to produce over 100 million annual doses of the new vaccine — R21.

The disease is caused by a complex parasite, spread by blood-sucking mosquitoes, which is more sophisticated than a virus due to its shape-shifting inside the human body, making it difficult to build immunity naturally and develop a vaccine against it.

It is almost two years to the day since the first vaccine — called RTS,S and developed by GSK — was backed by the WHO, BBC reported.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said: “I used to dream of the day we would have a safe and effective vaccine against malaria, now we have two.”

The UN health body stated that both vaccines were “very similar” in effectiveness, but the key difference was the University of Oxford’s ability to manufacture R21 at a massive scale.

Additionally, the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, plans to produce over 100 million doses annually and plans to increase to 200 million, despite only having 18 million RTS,S doses currently available.

The WHO said the new R21 vaccine would be a “vital additional tool”. Each dose costs $2-4 and four doses are needed per person which is about half the price of RTS,S.

While the two malaria vaccines share similar technologies and target the same stage of the parasite’s lifecycle, the newer vaccine is easier to manufacture due to its smaller dose and simpler adjuvant.

In 2021, there were 247 million cases of malaria and 619,000 people died, most of them children under the age of five. More than 95% of malaria is found in Africa.

While discussing the potential of the vaccine, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said: “This second vaccine holds real potential to close the huge demand-and-supply gap.

“Delivered to scale and rolled out widely, the two vaccines can help bolster malaria prevention, control efforts and save hundreds of thousands of young lives.”

The R21 vaccine, despite not being subjected to a standard scientific review process, has been found to be 75% effective in preventing malaria in seasonal areas, according to data published online.

The WHO’s strategic advisory group of experts suggests that malaria vaccine effectiveness is lower in areas where the parasite is present all year round, comparable to the first vaccine’s effectiveness in seasonal areas.

Prof Sir Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute in Oxford where R21 was developed, said: “The vaccine is easily deployable, cost-effective and affordable, ready for distribution in areas where it is needed most, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives a year.”

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